Understanding and interpreting dog body language can be challenging, but does get much easier with practice.  It can be difficult because some very similar looking body language signs can mean very different things. Often, it can help to take the entire picture and the situational context into account when trying to decide what a dog is “telling” you.

These two dogs are the same breed, which makes it easier to compare and contrast their body language, particularly when you can see them at the same time.

The overall impression we get from each of these two dogs is completely different. The yellow dog appears to be relaxed, comfortable and easy going. The brown dog appears to be nervous, avoidant and apprehensive.

Eyes

This simple close-up shot of these dogs’ eyes speaks volumes.

The yellow dog’s eyes are an almond shape. This is a soft, squinty eye. They looks alert, curious, and relaxed. The brown dog’s eyes are wide open and round, like a human’s eye watching a horror movie. Because his eyes are wide open and because he is turning his nose away from the person approaching, the brown dog has whale eye. You can also see that the brown dog has dilated pupils (indicating activation of the sympathetic nervous system/fight or flight) even though the lighting in the room is good. 

If you look carefully you can see how the brown dog’s ears are ‘pinched’ and folded tight, pressed against his head. If you look even closer you can see that the brown dog has dandruff shedding – another possible sign of stress.

Interpret your dog's body language relative to their personal baseline. This dog breed has big round eyes to start with, so you have to look for a change. Rounder eyes, I guess?

Of course, sometimes dandruff is just dandruff, and you may see the whites of your dogs eyes in many other circumstances. For example, one of our trainers has a lazy dog who doesn’t even lift his head up when she enters the room. However, his eyes follow her everywhere, like a creepy painting, showing the whites as they move. Other dogs may get crazy-eye while bouncing around playing. Take the context and the rest of the dog into consideration when trying to interpret dog body language.

Ears go back for many reasons. The general message of “ears back” is “I’m no threat”. A dog feeling friendly might put his ears back as if to say “I’m no threat, I just want to play. Let’s be friends.” His body will be loose and wiggly. A dog feeling nervous might put his ears back as if to say “I’m no threat, you have no reason to hurt me. Just leave me alone.” The ears may look pressed back and stiff. The nervous dog will not be loose, relaxed, or wiggly.

Similarly, mouths close and open for many reasons. A dog who is focused on a toy, or concentrating hard, may close his mouth. A stressed dog may have a wide open mouth, but the mouth will not look relaxed, he may be panting, and his lips may be drawn back unnaturally far and tight.

Even tail wagging can be deceptive. The brown dog appears to be wagging his tail. This does not mean that he is “happy”.

The most useful information comes from recognizing how the dog's body language changes when something in the environment changes.

For example,

  • When I approach my dog at his food bowl, he stops eating, his ears pin back, he holds his head completely still over the bowl
  • When I pick up my dog's foot to trim his nails, he leans away and turns his head. I can then see the whites of his eyes. His mouth is closed tight
  • When I approach my dog when he is chewing a bone, he lifts his head to look at me. His eyes are squinty, and his tongue is hanging out. He sometimes leaves the chew to come see me, sometimes he brings the chew with him
Knowing the context of the body language, and taking several different body parts into consideration, gives a clearer picture of how the dog is feeling. Can you guess how the dogs above are feeling just based on the written description of their body language?